13 epic engine flops

Every winter, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, lifts hoods on 70 or so cars for a look at the most interesting engines in its collection. This year we picked a dozen or so concepts that failed to pass muster—designs which showed initial promise but ultimately ended up in history’s trash bin.

1893 Clara As Carburetor

1893 Clara As Carburetor
Mark Harmon
1893 Clara As Carburetor

While others celebrated Christmas Eve with eggnog and cookies, Henry Ford pressed his wife into service testing an experimental engine at the kitchen sink. The Detroit inventor spun the flywheel as his better half dripped gasoline into the intake port. After the concoction made of pipe fittings fired and ran for a few seconds, the Fords sat down to roast turkey with all the trimmings.

1896 Riker Electric Runabout

1896 Riker Electric Runabout engine
1896 Riker Electric Runabout front 3/4

Andrew Riker, a resourceful engineer, built and sold cars and trucks powered by batteries and electric motors. In 1902, after he abandoned electrics in favor of gasoline engines, the Locomobiles he designed won several major road races.

1896 Ford Quadricycle

1896 Ford Quadricycle front 3/4
1896 Ford Quadricycle engine

Henry Ford sold his first experimental car for $200 (buying it back later for $65). It lacked brakes, reverse, and enough power to exceed 20 mph. Proving that disappointment begets success, Ford used an axe to widen the exit from his shop for the first test drive, thereby marking the invention of the garage door.

1907 White Model G Touring Car

1907 White Model G Touring Car
1907 White Model G Touring Car steam engine

In the first decade of the 20th century, gas, steam, and electricity all vied for a share of the car business. Even though John D. Rockefeller, Buffalo Bill Cody, and President William H. Taft were early adopters of this $3500 steam carriage, the White Motor Company converted all its production to gasoline engines in 1911.

1907 Automotive Plow

1907 Automotive Plow
1907 Automotive Plow

Henry Ford so hated the drudgery of farming that he moved to Detroit to work at Thomas Edison’s electric generating plant. After the Ford Motor Company gained momentum, Ford constructed this experimental workhorse powered by a Model B four-cylinder engine. A decade later, his vastly improved Fordson (background, above right) embodied the fundamental layout still used by modern tractors.

1913 Scripps-Booth Rocket

1913 Scripps-Booth Rocket front 3/4
1913 Scripps-Booth Rocket engine

Miniature vehicles the Europeans called “cycle cars” enjoyed a brief fling in America, with some 80 models available in 1914. Scripps-Booth built this 10-horsepower, two-cylinder, tandem prototype in 1913 with a target price of $385 (the equivalent of about $9500 today). Given the Ford Model T’s $360 base price, it’s clear why the Rocket fizzled.

1916 Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe

1916 Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe front 3/4
1916 Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe engine

To muster enough power to move its stylish coupe, the Woods Car Company tried teaming an AC motor with its 14-horsepower four-cylinder engine in a layout similar to Honda’s integrated motor assist system. Customers voted “no” on the $2650 Chicago-built car ($63,426 today) and Woods folded in 1918.

1925 Ford X-8 Engine

1925 Ford X-8 Engine
Mark Harmon
1925 Ford X-8 Engine

After the Model T was thriving, Henry Ford became fascinated with a double-row, eight-cylinder, 1.8-liter rotary engine design dubbed X-8. Air- and water-cooled versions were developed in secrecy at Ford’s Fair Lane estate, and running prototypes were constructed. When the design proved unreliable, Ford turned his brilliant mind to the first V-8 for the masses, an instant success.

1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale

1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale engine
1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale front 3/4

Ettore Bugatti thought the world’s kings and queens would snap up the grandest car ever built, which was powered by a 12.7-liter eight-cylinder inline SOHC engine delivering 250 horsepower. He was wrong. When only six Royales were sold, Bugatti assigned his extra engines to railroad service. One locomotive powered by four Royale engines was clocked at 122 mph over a 44-mile stretch.

1935 Ford-Miller Special

1935 Ford-Miller Special engine
1935 Ford-Miller Special front

The wily Preston Tucker convinced Henry Ford to sponsor a fleet of cars designed by Harry Miller for the Indy 500. The V-8-powered front-drive two seater was a gorgeous design with low-drag aerodynamic details. Unfortunately, this racer’s steering gear was mounted too closely to the exhaust manifold and all four of the cars that started the 500 failed to finish due to seized steering.

1962 Ford Mustang (Mustang I)

1962 Ford Mustang (Mustang I) engine
1962 Ford Mustang (Mustang I) front 3/4

Later dubbed Mustang I to distinguish it from the popular 2+2 which debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, this mid-engine roadster wore a nameplate and badge conceived by designer Phil Clark during his studies at California’s Art Center School. Propulsion was supplied by a 109-hp 1.5-liter V-4 and four-speed transaxle pirated from a front-drive German Ford Cardinal. Blame Ford VP Lee Iacocca for sending this stunner to the museum in favor of the more commercially viable ’64 Mustang.

1964 Chrysler Turbine

1964 Chrysler Turbine profile
1964 Chrysler Turbine engine

In the 1960s, after years of research, Chrysler deemed the turbine engine ready for customer feedback. Italy’s Ghia Carrozzeria manufactured a 50-car fleet of hardtop coupes propelled by a 130-horsepower multi-fuel engine that redlined at 60,000 rpm. When the public griped about slow response and poor fuel efficiency, all but nine of the gorgeous turbines were dispatched to the crusher. Chrysler’s turbine engine experts moved to a Michigan enterprise that enjoyed success designing engines for cruise missiles and business aircraft.

1997 GM EV1

1997 GM EV1 engine
1997 GM EV1 front 3/4

The General constructed 1117 two-seat coupes powered by a 137-horsepower electric motor spinning up to 7000 rpm, with energy stored in a lead-acid (later NiMH) battery pack. Even though the car’s operating range was only 90 miles, those who leased an EV1 loved the ride. After investing more than $1 billion in the program, GM recalled the fleet and crushed most of the electrics to spare ongoing service and parts costs. Lessons learned did, however, ease the task of engineering the more viable Chevrolet Volt hybrid and Bolt electric.